“As Muslims we welcomed them all. We welcomed them with bread, salt, and our hearts.”
We hear many accounts of what happened during the Holocaust. The atrocities committed; the times and places in which unspeakable acts against humankind occurred; the millions of lives stolen too soon.
But the story told above by Nazlie Alla, whose Albanian Muslim family sheltered Jews from Greece, Slovakia, and Germany, is less well known.
It’s hard to imagine that in any European country there were more Jews at the end of World War II than before it began. But almost every single Jew in Albania, whether they were Albanians or refugees from other nations, survived during the German occupation.
And Albania was the only European country to have a Muslim majority.
The Jews were protected, through the raids and searches and the times in between, by Albanians who followed the national code of Besa: a code of honor, the deepest promise a person can give, and the word that is never broken. Under Besa, Albanians took Jews into their homes, treated them as family, fed and clothed them, and sacrificed their own safety and the safety of their families for the sake of their guests.
Norman Gershman, a photographer and historian who traveled throughout Albania documenting the accounts of Muslim families who protected Jews, put out a book entitled Besa: Muslims who Saved Jews in World War II. He recalled that “What Besa says is that if some one knocks on your door you have an absolute obligation – no matter who that person is – to save their lives.”
Albania at the time had around 800,000 citizens, only about 200 of whom were Jewish – though over 2,000 refugee Jews from Greece, Austria and Italy were taken in to the homes of Albanians as well. And it wasn’t just Muslims making sacrifices – the entire population, approximately 70% Bektashi Muslim, 20% Orthodox Christians and 10% Catholic – risked their lives to save Jewish strangers.
The stories of righteous Muslims in Gershman’s book reveal that they understood Besa as an expression of the Qur’anic teachings of mercy, hospitality, and protecting the weak. Kujtim Civeja, a member of a traditional Muslim family of scholars, said “Our father wrote that when he had the opportunity and privilege to shelter so many Jewish families it gave him joy to put into practice his Islamic faith. To be generous is a virtue.”
Hamdi Mece explained “We never took money from those we sheltered. We took them in under our Besa. We are true Muslims, and God granted us the privilege of saving Jews. All life is precious and given by God. To save a life is God’s gift.”
Each portrait of a righteous person in this book is moving. But one in particular – Sadik Kalaja, who was twelve years old when his family sheltered a Yugoslav Jewish couple, allowing them to light Sabbath candles in their home – struck me.
He said “My father gave us an order: If there is a knock on the door, take responsibility.”
It’s an ethic of the Qur’an, it’s an ethic of Albanian national tradition and it should be an ethic of the 21st century.